Wilson Jab at U.S. Takes 4-Hour Detour


Gov. Pete Wilson’s attempt Tuesday to embarrass the White House about illegal immigration turned into a four-hour trek across the Southern California desert in search of a confrontation with U.S. border officers for the television cameras.

State officials had hoped to surprise federal authorities in the small San Diego County town of Alpine on Tuesday morning, showing up at 10:30 a.m. with a crowd of reporters, state authorities, prison guards and a convicted illegal immigrant criminal borrowed from a nearby state prison.

They expected that U.S. officers at a federal facility in Alpine would refuse to assume custody of the inmate, thereby illustrating what Wilson says President Clinton is doing to California. But when the caravan arrived in Alpine, there were no federal authorities present to participate in the governor’s drama.


Undeterred, state officials held their news conference anyway, charging that immigration officials had tried to foil their scheme. Then they spent much of the afternoon escorting a 25-year-old convicted drug seller to the next federal facility, almost 100 miles away in El Centro.

State authorities initially refused to release the name of the inmate from Mexico to protect his privacy but allowed him to be photographed for television. The later identified him as Eliseo Gonzalez de la Cruz.

“By turning its back on this transfer, the Clinton administration is turning its back on California,” Wilson said in a statement. “The taxpayers of this state are being forced to spend more than $400 million a year to lock up criminals who should not even be in this country in the first place.”

State officials found their confrontation in El Centro, where border guards told them that U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno had told the governor in a letter three weeks ago that the prisoner transfer was unauthorized and illegal.

If the inmate was left on their doorstep, the El Centro agents said, the action would be interpreted as a termination of the state criminal sentence and they would initiate normal procedures for a quick deportation.

But Wilson officials decided that they had made their point, so they returned to the Centinella state prison in Imperial County, where the inmate is expected to serve the remaining year of his sentence.

The high drama in the low desert Tuesday was a small part of an ongoing battle in California over who should get blame and who should get credit for the burdens associated with illegal immigration.

In a year when California looms as a possible swing state in the November presidential election, both sides plan a major effort to advertise their cases.

Wilson officials said they will respond to Tuesday’s action by filing a complaint in federal court. They insist that Clinton signed a 1994 law that requires the federal government to either reimburse the state for incarcerating about 20,000 illegal immigrants or assume custody of them.

Meanwhile, in Washington, Reno blamed the Republican-controlled Congress in her letter to Wilson for not appropriating funds that would allow the federal government to assume custody of the state’s illegal immigrant inmates.

At the same time, she noted that California has received $33.5 million this year in reimbursement for its prison costs. A Justice Department official said that an additional $30.5-million disbursement to California will be announced today.

The funds are far short of the $400 million that Wilson has requested. But Reno responded: “We are the first administration ever to provide assistance to the states for the costs associated with incarcerating criminal aliens.”